by Jas Faulkner, Nashville Correspondent
The happy chaos at the A Game Sportsplex in Franklin, Tennessee might seem intimidating to a lesser soul, but to Predators Amateur and Youth Hockey Coordinator, Andee Boiman, it means one thing: Mission accomplished! On this particular Monday I caught up with Ms. Boiman as the Predators’ Get Out And Learn program, also known as G.O.A.L., was winding up it’s late summer session. Ms. Boiman was on hand to give out the certificates of completion that had been signed by Predators head coach, Barry Trotz and tell parents about other opportunities available to children who have been bitten by the hockey bug and want to continue to play.
As the four- to eight-year-olds swarmed off the rink and into the dressing rooms and outer lobby to shed their protective gear and get ready to party, Boiman beamed and shouted above the din, “It’s a typical crazy last day. Isn’t it great?” As a mater of fact, it really is.
The Predators’ G.O.A.L. program helps to generate interest in the sport and gives children a chance to see for themselves whether hockey is right for them. As the mother of one first-time participant said: “He loves to watch the games and we’re going to see if he wants to pursue it once he’s had a chance to come here for weekly sessions. If he loves it as much as I think he will, then we’ll continue.”
Four Afternoons, Forty-five Minutes and Possibly A New Life’s Passion
Geared towards children four to eight years of age, G.O.A.L. offers enough of a challenge to keep little ones interested but in amounts that don’t leave them daunted by the technical aspects of picking up a new sport. The sessions, which run 45 minutes each, are held once a week for four weeks. The teachers come from both professional and youth programs and work with the participants all four weeks, so they get the benefit of having someone familiar with their initial skill level and progress while they are enrolled.
Me: Which one is yours?
G.O.A.L. Mom: The one who can’t skate.
Actually, the ability to skate is not a prerequisite for participation in G.O.A.L.. Each child is assessed to see what their skill level is and all participants are given the chance to learn rudimentary skating as a part of the curriculum. Among other things you and your child will not need in order to take advantage of G.O.A.L.: extensive knowledge of hockey, gear, or a big outlay of cash. The program is free and spaces are available on a first come-first served basis.
“One of the great things about G.O.A.L. is that it gives kids a chance to see how they feel about playing hockey without a big time commitment or expense to their parents. Its a fun, welcoming environment that has turned into a family thing for some. You’ll see kids who are out there because they saw big brother or sister skating and they want to do it, too!”
At the start of the first session the class waited -some more patiently than others- for their chance to get on the ice as the instructor gave them instructions. As he opened to gate to let them through, the effect was a bit like watching someone tip over a laundry basket full of puppies. Kids slipped and flopped on the ice. One brave little soul who was determined to wear his yellow promotional Predators sweater instead of the G.O.A.L. issued white jersey took almost three minutes to toddle from one blue line to the other, where he stood back for a moment and watched some bigger kids play a pickup game before giving the whole scenario a determined nod and then scooting in front of the net to await his Pekka Rinne moment. Over the course of the next four weeks, everyone showed marked improvement in their skating skills and few were beginning to glide along, frowning in concentration as they worried the puck they were trying to guide along the length of the rink.
Who Participates In G.O.A.L.?
The families involved come from all walks of life. Some of them drove in from two and three counties away to afford their children the opportunity to play hockey in Nashville. There were transplants from the west coast who miss their Kings and their Ducks but are happy to see their own kids develop a love for Predators hockey. A couple of parents disclosed that they had played in mites leagues at Municipal, recalling how thrilling it was when players from the minor league teams that were there at the time paid a visit. One mom whose son now plays in youth leagues but started out with G.O.A.L. was there because his younger sister was going through the program. She noted that the environment in Nashville was far more family oriented than what she was used to seeing in Toronto. For the majority of the families involved the love of hockey, if not direct experience playing the game was part of what G.O.A.L. was enabling them to pass on to their children.
Judging from the ponytails and pink leggings, stick tape, and stick blades, it is safe to say that roughly a quarter of the kids were girls. The four year age range seemed a bit of a stretch at first, but it works out beautifully, with a pretty even distribution of children in all parts of the spectrum participating.
Meet A Pro!
One of the highlights for the G.O.A.L. kids and their families is the chance to meet and skate with a professional hockey player. For the last session, the pro visits were made by Preds training camp attendees Nick Spaling and Andreas Thuresson. The kids, many of whom were literally knee-high to the big guys, skated a bit warily around them at first. Then a few began to slide along next to them, asking them questions and eventually attempting to pass the puck to them. Thuresson said that he felt programs like G.O.A.L. are good because they encourage children to find an activity they enjoy .
“I’ve always liked working with kids’ hockey programs and have done it here and back home. That first time you get to play is important. I’m glad I got to help with their introduction to it.”
In this regard, the cast of characters changes from session to session. In the past, visiting pros have included Jordin Too, Terry Crisp and JP Dumont. Who makes the visit is often determined by player availability.
A New Breed of Predators Fan? The Next Gen of Home-Grown Talent?
The kids in the program are part of the generation who have had the continual presence of professional hockey in their town all their lives. To them, this is simply something that has always been here. G.O.A.L. is a lark for some, the start of a lifelong journey for others. Nashville’s first home-grown pro, Blake Geoffrion, is currently making his way through the Predators development program here and in Milwaukee. Years from now, when he’s considered a veteran, he may one day find himself in the company of someone who started out on a rink in Nashville or Franklin, wobbling along in their white G.O.A.L. jersey while their proud parents and grandparents snapped pictures and took movies on their phones.
Does your dryer door bear the dents of a thousand slapshots from an aspiring Sidney Crosby? Is little Alexandra sniping biscuits from Sunday breakfast and whipping them at squirrels in the backyard with Daddy’s best nine iron when she thinks you’re not looking? Maybe it’s time they gave hockey a try! Go to NashvillePredators.com/youthhockey for more information!
The Kids From G.O.A.L. (and some of their siblings) Speak!
While working on this story,I spoke to many parents about why hockey was important to them and their kids. Many of the Moms, Dads, Aunts and Grands knew who their kid’s favorite player was and a few mentioned that their kids were avid fans of the Predators. I felt this story would not be complete without letting the kids of G.O.A.L. speak for themselves. Some jumped at the chance, others weren’t so keen on talking to a reporter. (One tiny boy only nodded throughout his interview. When I thanked him and turned off my digital recorder, he held up his hand and said, “Wait a minute! I’m not finished!”) Parents, if I didn’t get to interview your child or if they (due to some technical issues with the sound quality) didn’t make it to print here, please feel free to drop me a line at JasFaulkner@gmail.com I am going to be covering the children of Predsnation all year and will be happy to include their thoughts about hockey in an upcoming article. So without further ado, Meet some of the chattier denizens of this Summer’s G.O.A.L. class:
Who is your favorite Nashville Predator?
Jordin Tootoo Campbell, age 4
Jordin Tootoo Tai, age 4
Jordin Tootoo Ian, age 6
Shea Weber Isaac, age 11
Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne Evan, age 4
Jason Arnott and Syndey Crosby William, age 6
Shea Weber Charles, age 7
Jordin Tootoo Graham, age 4
(pointing to the little boy next to her) Matt! Emma, age 4
Joel Ward Braden, age 7
Jordin Tootoo Charlie, age 7
What advice do you have for the Predators this season?
Hit the puck really hard and score lots of goals. Campbell, age 4
Have a good season! Tai, age 4
Win! Ian, age 6
Skate and do all the stuff that the Predators do. Isaac, age 11
They already play really hard. Evan, age 4
Keep two hands on your stick and your stick on the ice because that’s when the magic happens! William, age 6
Just play hard and do your best! Charles, age 7
They need to score. Graham, age 4
Try to score a lot. Emma, age 4
Score more goals! Braden, age 7
…and Jordin Tootoo returns the favor:
I think education is the most important thing. Its pretty tough to get a job without it. Hockey is always going to be there. When I was growing up my parents would always say, “If you don’t do your homework, you don’t get to play hockey.”
Respect your teachers and your parents and choose the right crowd.
Some additional thoughts…
My favorite part of hockey is falling down. Tai, age 4
Nashville will get the cup. Yep! Campbell, age 4
Tomorrow we’ll meet more kids from Predsnation. Later next week, I catch up with Pete Weber, Terry Crisp, Paul McCann and anyone else who will talk to me about broadcasting hockey in Nashville… and October 9th? Predsnation celebrates as the regular season starts off with a home game against the Mighty Ducks!
This is Jas Faulkner, who thinks the cosmos shows her it loves her every year because animals are allowed in church on her birthday (“The dog? In CHURCH? Oy…” -Jas’ Dad) and there’s hockey in Nashville. See you at the ‘Stone, the ‘Plex and online at Facebook and Twitter.